Cellist Mariel Roberts releases her second solo recording with bold premiere performances of works written for her by George Lewis, Eric Wubbels, David Brynjar Franzson, and a collaborative work she wrote with Cenk Ergun.
|01||gretchen am spinnrade|
gretchen am spinnrade
|Mariel Roberts, cello, Eric Wubbels, piano||16:38|
|Mariel Roberts, cello, Cenk Ergün, live electronics||10:37|
|Mariel Roberts, cello||13:18|
|04||The Cartography of Time|
The Cartography of Time
|Mariel Roberts, cello||20:37|
Cellist Mariel Roberts releases her second solo recording with bold premiere performances of works written for her by George Lewis, Eric Wubbels, David Brynjar Franzson, and a collaborative work she wrote with Cenk Ergun. Wubbels’ manic gretchen am spinnrade opens the recording in a frenzy, catching Goethe and Schubert’s Gretchen in a psychic tailspin, as the metaphor of the spinning wheel is extended to her karmic life and to the careening of cause and effect in personal and public history. Vacillating between ominous tolling piano chords, demonically virtuosic repeated motivic cells, and snarling cello double stops, gretchen am spinnrade is a relentless work that gives Gretchen, or the listeners, little respite during its sixteen minute duration. As the piece closes, the spinning wheel creaks and moans in disarray, damaged beyond repair. The boundary between acoustic and electronic in Cenk Ergun and Roberts’ collaborative piece Aman has as its ingredients dry, glitchy percussive sounds, airy bow textures, and grinding double stops.Read More
Texture and timbre supply the narrative arc in this work, named for a word that translates variously to “security’ in Arabic, and expresses a sense of deep sorrow and loss in Turkish. George Lewis’ solo work, Spinner, is inspired by the ancient Greek belief in the Fates, three sister goddesses charged with determining the course of human life. The work energetically jumps between different disjointed and angular musical characters in a virtuosic technical and expressive display. In his liner note, Lewis observes that even in Plato’s explication of the role of the Fates, the ultimate responsibility and stewardship of our communities lies with humans themselves, a viewpoint that some might find perilous at this historical moment. In Icelandic born, New York city based composer David Brynjar Franzson’s The Cartography of Time, sonically expansive textures explore the dichotomy between local gesture and structural context. Franzson paints a stark landscape and supplies an inward looking close to an album whose uncompromising energy is unwavering, intense, and at times unsettling in ways that reflect the complicated time in which we live.
“Trailblazing” cellist Mariel Roberts (Feast of Music) is widely recognized as a deeply dedicated interpreter of contemporary music. Recent performances have garnered praise for her “technical flair and exquisite sensitivity” (American Composers Forum), as well as her ability to “couple youthful vision with startling maturity”. (InDigest Magazine). Roberts' work emphasizes expanding the technical and expressive possibilities of her instrument through close relationships with innovative performers and composers of her generation. Her passion for collaboration and experimentation has led her to premiere hundreds of new works by both emerging and established artists.
Roberts has appeared as a soloist and chamber musician across four continents, most notably as a member of the Mivos String Quartet, as well as Wet Ink Ensemble and Ensemble Signal. She performs regularly on major stages for new music such as the Lincoln Center Festival (NYC), Wien Modern (Austria), Lucerne Festival(Switzerland), Cervantino Festival (Mexico), Klang Festival (Denmark), Shanghai New Music Week (China), Darmstadt Internationalen Ferienkurse für Neue Musik (Germany), and Aldeburgh Music Festival (UK). Roberts has been featured as a chamber musician on recordings for Innova, Albany Records, New World Records, New Amsterdam, Carrier Records, New Focus, and Urtext Records.
Roberts' premiere solo album, Nonextraneous Sounds, was released to critical acclaim in September 2012. New York's WQXR radio wrote, “By playing a program this well-curated, with this much confidence, precision and good old-fashioned muscle, Roberts is not so much "making a statement," artistically speaking, as she is sounding an alarm. Listeners should come running.”
When conservatories and music departments finally awake from their (irresponsible) slumber to the reality that they should be teaching new music in earnest, they would do well to ink Mariel Roberts at or near the top of their list of cello professor candidates.
Ms. Roberts first head-butted her way into my consciousness in 2012 with the exceptional Nonextraneous Sounds record, and as with her debut release, I fully anticipate that 2017’s Cartography will remain in my annual Top 10 across the next seven months. The technique is superlative here, but this album is also a feat of inspired and divergent programming, and the technique tends to evaporate behind the poetry of the performances.
Imagine that Walter White’s most habitual customer gets his hands on a stack of Nancarrow and Reich LPs and spends a three-day bender composing a feverish homage. You’re starting to get the picture of Eric Wubbels’ Gretchen Am Spinnrade. Like the Schubert from which it takes its title, the piece is a frenzy of cyclic motives — it’s just that in this case the sonic mania involves microtonal tuning and fingernail pizzicati at eighth-note=132 bpm. String players, and listeners in general, may feel their shoulders anxiously pulling toward their ears as Roberts scales these inhumane licks, but subsequent passes through the track reveal opulent harmonies and a perverse, ultimately savory groove, not to mention Wubbles’s piano playing making an unassailable case for tossing out the term “accompanist,” forever. This is not music one writes hoping for the best. It is written with a specific talent in mind.
The utter loneliness captured in Cenk Ergün’s Aman sits in stark contrast at track 2. Parameters involving percussive elements and harmonic pressure create a dry landscape which Ergün then compellingly processes live with an organic quality that heightens, but never overshadows the cello. It plays as music for our current socio-political predicament, to this reviewer at least, when hope retreats, and its abrupt end offers no tidy conclusions.
If Aman lives in a certain, darker corner of the mind, George Lewis’s Spinner bounces capriciously around the rest of the cranial cavity. The piece lives the longest in what might be considered the traditional tuning and techniques of the cello, a superball-on-the-varnish rhythmic breakdown notwithstanding, and Roberts’ rich tone and fingerboard-leaping abilities are on full display. Lewis’ recent scores find that elusive seam between the organization of the extemporaneous and the organization of the premeditated, and Roberts infuses both the instinctual and the intellectual angles of this music with equal surety.
Davíð Brynjar Franzson’s The Cartography of Time closes out the proceedings, dipping in and out of white noise, sculpting long tones that seem to make it all the way to the horizon. Delicious bass expands outward and eventually glitches into silence as harmonics glisten and compete and fold back in on themselves. The fourth of four distinct entries, The Cartography of Time aptly deposits the listener many, many miles from where he began at the top of this exquisite album.
-- Doyle Armbrust, Q2 Music, 5.22.2017
As both a member of the highly regarding Mivos Quartet and as a solo artist in her own right, cellist Mariel Roberts has demonstrated an affinity for uncompromising music and a capacity for making even the most challenging works sing. Composer Eric Wubbels is among the numerous beneficiaries of Roberts’s advocacy – his gretchen Am Spinnrade, a duo for cello and piano, is featured on Roberts’s new CD, Cartography, with Wubbels himself at the piano. In advance of an album-release concert at National Sawdust on May 19, as well as a New York Philharmonic Contact! program that includes Wubbels’s katachi coming up at National Sawdust on May 22, the two sat down recently at a neighborhood café to compare experiences and agendas.
ERIC WUBBELS: So, Mariel, I thought maybe we could start by just talking about the disc a little bit. It seems like collaboration is a big part of what you’re interested in as a performer. All these pieces were written specifically for you. So maybe you could talk just a little bit about what are some of the challenges that these pieces present to you as a performer, and a bit about what you look for in collaborators?
MARIEL ROBERTS: Collaboration is always super important for me, even if it’s a solo piece – for example, George [Lewis]’s piece is a totally solo piece without anything else. For me, music is about connection with other people. It is almost never something that I feel I’m doing by myself. It’s always something that enables me to communicate with other human beings, and to be with other human beings. So even if I’m putting out a solo record, to me it’s really important that other people are very much involved. That is what makes music fun, and that’s what gives it meaning.
EW: What was the process, and what kind of range of processes do you have, in collaborating, both on this disc and maybe on your previous disc, too? I imagine in some cases you’re really working with the composer in the development of the material, and maybe in other cases it’s given to you and it’s a little bit less hands-on. So what’s been your range of experience with that?
MR: It kind of ran the gamut with this project. For example, with you I think we worked pretty hardcore on the material, and then you assembled it and kind of wrote it out after we had worked on ideas that you’d had. With Cenk [Ergun]’s piece, we kind of wrote that piece together, in a way, because it’s super-structured cells that we kind of pieced together in real time. So he wrote a patch that I’m playing with, and also little cells that are optional textures that can happen in that piece, and we just did a bunch of versions of that in recording and chose the parts that we liked. So every performance of that piece will be totally different.
With George’s piece, he brought me a ton of material, a ton of different types of material, and I just played through a lot of things and he changed things as we went, depending on my playing and stuff that felt good for me to play. He mostly had written it out, but he changed it after we worked on it a little bit together. And then David [Brynjar Franzson]’s piece, we worked on very specific sounds, so his piece only has a few notes, actually, seven or so notes that happen over the course of that piece. So we would just get together for a couple of hours and play a note or a multiphonic for a really long time and just feel what that felt like. And he rearranged the structure of the piece a lot, so it ended up being quite a bit longer than I think he originally intended. It’s about 20 minutes now, so over the course of working together it just felt like that was the length it needed to be based on how it felt to play.
EW: After having gone through a process like that, to what extent can you see yourself in the piece – your imprint on it, or the sense that it’s really been tailored to your personality? Is that something that you want?
MR: I think so. I imagine that any piece is going to sound like the person that’s playing it, so somebody else playing these pieces, it’s going to sound like them, in a way. But I can’t imagine that they don’t also sound a lot like my playing. I would think that as composers are writing for me, they are thinking of the specifics of my playing, and of things that I really enjoy or excel at or can do in a way that other people can’t do.
EW: All that stuff comes across, but I feel like this disc has a really wide range of types of playing on it, so it’s interesting to see that people approaching you as a collaborator would see all these different things in you as a musician. What are you looking for in a collaborator? Why have you chosen these types of people to work with, aside from presumably just being interested in their sorts of musical worlds? What makes a good collaborator, to you?
MR: To me, a good collaborator is somebody who has super strong ideas to begin with. They come to the table with a lot of ideas about what type of structure or sound world they want to make, but are also very open to input from someone else. To me that means that collaborators should have a lot of respect for each other, and be different in a lot of ways, but similar in a mindset of keeping a super open mind about what’s happening, and being willing to change, or having the strength to know that something’s not going to work, I’m not going to change it.
For this disc, the people I wanted to work with were people whose music I thought was incredibly rich in ideas, and to me is music that is really doing something interesting and different right now. I have to play a lot of music; in general I have a lot of music to play. And honestly, I feel like there’s not that much music that I get extremely excited about, so this is an opportunity for me to work with people that I feel are doing really exciting things.
EW: Aside from that issue of personality and style, are there particular types of challenges, when you’re curating a program for yourself, that you seek out, and say, I want to work with this person because I think that maybe this is what they’re going to send back to me as a particular kind of performance challenge?
MR: Definitely. I have a habit of wanting to push myself past where I think that I can play. I have a deep joy in doing things that I find impossible at one point, and then find a way to make it happen. For example, I knew that George would give me a piece that was just all of the notes in all possible permutations [laughs]. I knew that was going to happen, and it would be extremely challenging, but I really wanted that challenge for myself. I think I always try to choose my programming in a way that it is as intense for me to perform, and to achieve a good performance, as it is for the listener to hear a great performance of those pieces. That’s really important to me, to have that period of intense work and struggle on a piece, I think.
EW: I’m sure that kind of energy communicates to the audience pretty directly.
EW: I wanted to ask you, since we actually never talked about it in the context of the piece that I wrote for you and we worked on together, what is it like to play that piece? [laughs] What do you find particularly challenging about it? We went through the process together, but we never really had a post mortem about how it turned out, here’s what it’s like to do that for 17 minutes.
MR: It’s hard. [laughs] It’s really hard. For me, I think the hardest part of your piece is focus, because there’s tons of really difficult material arranged in non-intuitive ways – which I think is a great part of the piece, but also makes it really difficult to perform. The physicality of that is also very, very demanding. That’s why your piece, for example, always needs to go at the end of a program, because I cannot physically play after playing that piece.
EW: I feel like there are definitely pieces like that that I have in my performance repertoire, and I wonder if we’re starting to get enough of those pieces that it’s going to make it impossible to program – “well, this has to be last, and so does this” – or if we’ll just figure out a way to overcome that eventually.
MR: I think that does happen, though. For example, on my last record there’s a piece I did by Tristan Perich [Formations], and every time I played that piece, the first maybe 10 to 15 times I played it, I would get really sick afterward – physically sick, a cold, throwing up, whatever – for like three days afterward, every single time I played that, because it took so much out of me.
So I didn’t play it for a little while. And then I came back to it recently, actually, and it was okay. I was able to push past, or maybe had just grown strong enough to be able to play it without completely wearing myself down. But those pieces definitely exist.
EW: Wow, this is like a new bar for what it means to play new music.
MR: If you’re not throwing up, you’re not trying. [laughs]
EW: Speaking for myself, but I’m sure the same is true for a lot of your other collaborators, that kind of attitude, and that willingness to really stretch yourself, is definitely one of the things that is appealing about working with someone like you. It’s an invitation to just imagine something really exciting, and just know that the other person is going to be willing to go out of their comfort zone, beyond the kind of normal place, and go to a special place.
MR: I think that’s really important to me, just in art in general: to go beyond what you think you’re capable of. That makes the most interesting thing, whether it’s in music or art or film or whatever. To me, that is the achievement of being human: to be able to push past the limits that you think that you have. So I think that also means a lot of feelings of failure, sometimes, in a way. But to me, the only way I feel truly satisfied is if I’ve pushed past something that was really challenging to me.
EW: I think there’s also people who would maybe not feel that way, and maybe that’s fine, too. Do you ever get people reacting to these pieces with a sense of, “What is all the hysteria about? Why do we have to go to this place? Can’t we just listen to some music and have a good chill?
MR: I have never, in a performance, had that reaction. I feel like if you perform something with total commitment and intensity, people get it. They completely get it. I have had that response many times when people listen to you, ironically, on recordings. Or just talking hypothetically, I feel like that issue comes up all the time. People tend to feel like they need to have that talk with you, if you are a person who likes to program or advocate for intense, challenging programs. But I feel like it completely speaks for itself in a performance, and I’ve definitely never felt that in that context. Have you had that experience, as a composer?
EW: Very similar to what you just described, yeah, I think there is something really convincing about seeing it embodied in the moment, and just attaching the whole visual spectacle of seeing the person, what it means to do that. Because some of the music, again, to talk about the piece I wrote for us, in the absence of being able to see the facial expressions, it’s kind of crazy. It flirts with very manic territory, for sure.
MR: That’s one thing that makes me a bit sad, because obviously performance is an important part of what we do, but recording and just music being out there is equally important, in a way, for people to hear what we’re doing, or to see what the scene is actually like. And I think people have a really hard time with music that sounds slightly unfamiliar to them, approaching it in an open way. In a performance that’s easy, because you see the human in front of you. You feel that human connection. But I think people often feel alienated when they don’t have that immediate human connection, in a way.
EW: It definitely helps to make it intelligible, I think, if it’s unfamiliar stuff. I guess I’ve started to feel, too, that maybe even more important than genre allegiances for some people, there is this sense that there are people who really are drawn to aesthetic experiences in any medium that are on that kind of intense place, and there are people who aren’t; they want the comfortable, more quotidian sort of thing. But people who are really into going to a concert where the music is really loud, or a certain kind of movie that is a more demanding experience in terms of viscerality or content or level of tension, might be more ready to hear music that also goes to that place – less about the musical language, and more about parameters like that.
MR: In general that’s my feeling of what music should be: It should be an experience. I would almost never just put music on in the background of what I’m doing. To me, that is a disservice to the music, in a way. And even if I did, I would end up getting distracted from what I was doing and just listen to the music – or vice versa and stop listening. I feel like I want it to be an experience; I want to feel something when I listen to music. And I do; I can feel some very strong things. But I don’t think it should be always something casual, like people consume music so casually now. You have your iPod on constantly. There’s music playing in this café that nobody is listening to. I would love to feel like music is an experience.
EW: Well, I think that continuing to put yourself onstage in the role of the performer and playing music like that is a way of advocating for that, for sure.
MR: How would you define your music? How would you describe your aesthetic?
EW: Well, I think one of the things that is central to what I try to do is what we’ve just been discussing. The experience that I as a listener am most drawn to is one of kind of immersion within the experience, and that can be as a result of just a very compelling kind of aesthetic argument that’s going on, or it can be sensory, or ideally it’s both at the same time. It’s some combination of the rhetoric of what you’re experiencing, plus how turned up all of the sensory material of the experience is, so that it’s completely enveloping. I really go for that feeling of saturation; I want to lose myself, as a listener, in the experience of listening to something, or being encountered with art. I don’t want to maintain my inner monologue the entire time, with the little critical voice that’s saying, “Why did that happen?” I really want it to be so strong that it erases that, relieves me of that for a minute.
MR: A transcendent moment.
EW: Yeah, sure, you could put it that way, too. I sort of want to find ways of getting to that place, and so there are various strategies for that that have to do with maximizing intensity through the way in which the material is chosen and shaped, the way in which formal things are deployed and structured. One thing that I think about a lot is just pacing, proportions – I want zero-fat music. I want everything to be functional. And that allows me, in an ideal scenario, to also be very minimal with what I do, I think. That’s my ideal: to be simple, to be direct, and to have an intense care for the material and its proportions lead under those conditions to something that can feel really compelling, really enveloping, internally coherent and consistent but also totally surprising in its momentary formal gambits.
And then also, I love sound [laughs], so that’s a big thing. I love very big, blocky forms, where things change abruptly. I think maybe that’s another big aesthetic dichotomy that’s out there at the moment, pieces that are just kind of monolithic and all one thing – but I love that, when it’s done well, where things really change in a piece. You’re really drawn out of it. It’s really arresting when big formal things happen. And then just really strong material, sounds that are… they can be very beautiful, very ugly, very raw, very strained, whatever it is. In most cases, things that are maybe not 100 percent familiar from other contexts, just because I feel like I want that sense of curiosity – it takes you a second to figure out what that is and what’s going on with it, which I think is another way of getting enveloped in the experience. If you’re asked to solve that little puzzle, it engages you, it hooks you and draws you in.
All of my secondary metaphors these days are food-based… [laughs] It’s like the type of food that I love to eat; I just want every bite to be taking advantage of everything that your sensory apparatus has to offer. I want it to be…
MR: 100 percent, every time.
EW: Why wouldn’t you?
MR: Why wouldn’t you want all the best things, all the time? I feel like people often talk about how complex your music is, and how dense it is. But my feeling is exactly as you said: it’s quite minimal. There’s nothing without purpose. There’s never anything that is just there. And I feel like I have a bit of a negative association with the term complex, or complexity. That just makes me think about people who use computers to make calculations to make as many notes as possible. And arbitrary – complex means arbitrary to me, and to me your music is the opposite of that. Everything is extremely purposeful, and also extremely emotional – I feel like your music is incredibly emotional, always. There’s many academic things about it, it’s very informed, and you obviously have done a ton of research that informs your music. But at the core of that, I feel like there’s always so much movement, and so much human empathy and thought, in your music. And that’s kind of a remarkable balance of things.
EW: That’s definitely what I strive for. I don’t shy away from the idea that an experience could be rich and complex; it’s just that that word has become kind of loaded in ways that we need to dance around a bit. But that’s definitely the ideal; that’s what makes a saturated, immersive experience, is layers. I love stuff that I can go back to and watch again and again, listen to again and again, and I think you only get that when it’s really been fussed over. It’s hyper-edited. The pacing, it’s not an accident. Think of your favorite comic, their timing – their routine has been honed so much.
The TV shows that I love… have we ever talked about The Eric André Show? I’m completely obsessed with that show, and one of the things that makes it so good is the editing – and it’s tenths of a second. Why is that cut there, and not 20 milliseconds later? That really matters. It’s the difference between something that I will watch six times in a row, and something that I’ll watch once, laugh at, and then forget about. So, ways of fighting against disposable content, ways of really standing up for… what do we want? At the end of the day, I want art. I want the thing that art has always been, which is a meaningful experience that is layered and rich, that’s on some level a dialogue, even if it’s an out-of-time dialogue, between two different minds that light each other up in various ways.
MR: That’s like the quote of the evening: “fighting against disposable content.”
EW: Yeah, but that is what I see as one of the big battles. In art, in life, it’s just a huge thing that we’re up against. And you really have to fight for it, because it is not easy to do. It takes a lot of time, it takes a lot of work, and you could get away with less.
MR: You can always get away with less. I think it takes a huge personal investment to choose to live that way, as well.
EW: But people respond to it, in my experience, and that’s what makes it worthwhile. Even just going on SoundCloud and watching some undergrad in wherever listening to your track 17 times a day…all right, I know I’ve got this very obsessive music, but if someone else is getting obsessed with it, too, then that validates it, too, on some level.
MR: I also wanted to ask, what is the appeal of duos for you? You just released a duos album, and there’s going to be another one.
EW: I’ve thought about that a fair amount – I don’t know that I’ve got a ready-to-go answer. It just seems to be my medium, on some level, something that is close to my heart. Obviously every medium like that is a kind of symbol for some kind of social structure, too, so there’s something about the directness – it’s sort of the most essentialized, reduced version of human interaction. Solo pieces feel solipsistic to me, and I’m almost completely disinterested in them. Orchestra is something that’s just problematic to me, politically. The duo is this crystalized version of self-and-other that, in almost every case in this series, the starting point is, how do I take these two things and make something unified out of them, that partakes of both of their natures, but also finds a way of synthesizing those in some way?
The piano is both my instrument and what I see as a symbol of clunky, rational thought, its inability to play in a non-equal tempered way, which I find ways of subverting with preparations and all that. It’s definitely this thing that needs to be kind of melted down from its rigidness by the influence of the other instrumental personality in some way, in most of these pieces. It’s become totally integral to that series to go through these long processes of months of material, hunting, refining, writing the piece, performing it, revising it, touring with it, recording it, all that stuff. That’s way easier to do with two people than with seven, so that dimension has been important to it, too.
MR: I also want to ask you about the quartet [being-time, composed by Wubbels for the Mivos Quartet], which is coming out maybe soon?
EW: Yeah, the recording is done, so we’re putting it in the pipeline to be released.
MR: To me, that piece is a bit different than some of your other pieces. It’s maybe… I’m trying to think of the right word to describe it. It’s incredibly internal, in a way. It’s very… I don’t want to say dark. It’s not dark. Maybe you can describe better what that piece is? It’s very special.
EW: When you set out to write an hour-long piece, the thing sitting on your shoulder is “the great piece,” the idea of that. And the string quartet genre, too. So it’s hard to kind of keep knocking that thing down, and just try to write music. But definitely there’s a huge amount of conceptual underpinning for that piece. It was a huge project having to do with the psychological experience of time, and how that kind of feels in an aesthetic domain. Which, again, as soon as you start talking about it just seems ludicrously pretentious. It’s a function of scale. It’s weighty on some level, but also the first movement has some huge silences in it, so there’s this sense that you’re in these voids for a while before things start to get filled in. That might account for some of that feeling that you were describing. On the whole, when I look back at that piece I feel like it was an attempt to just kind of create an alternate reality that you could live in for a while, that you could visit.
It’s also very experimental; there’s even a form of the piece that I feel like we haven’t even done yet, which is, the fifth part of it is kind of all of the previous four parts at once, and I feel like there is a version of the piece that is just a recorded installation, in which you could combine everything in the first four parts in an infinite number of ways, and it’s almost a Stockhausen thing where one second could give you a picture of the whole, and there could be thousands of different versions of that single second. So it’s a piece that functions as an hour-long concert piece; listen to the fifth part and you get a very strong sense of all the material in the piece in 10 minutes, without having to sit through the extended version of it.
MR: But I think the scale is something that’s very important to the piece, and I think that’s something people often shy away from, being able to play with that type of scale. Especially in contemporary music, people don’t understand how difficult that is for people who are not inside the contemporary-music world to deal with.
EW: Syntax is really tricky. Just sustaining functional meaning in a post-tonal vocabulary over huge spans is always the challenge, especially with material that’s not totally monolithic. That’s where all the wacky tuning stuff helps, to build structures that you can hang things on. I’m looking forward to that project – the format of the recording just putting enough of a structure, too, that we can finally wrap it up, send it out into the world, and get some feedback.
Naxos USA launches in the CD audio market the new album by the cellist Mariel Roberts, "Cartography", her second solo album with premieres written for her by George Lewis, Eric Wubbels, David Brynjar Franzson and a collaborative work that she wrote with Cenk Ergun. A record album with a technique of superlative musical interpretation, but also an inspired and divergent program added to a technique that builds poetry in its interpretation of the cello.
"Gretchen Am Spinnrade" opens the program, wavering between piano chords, replays with incredible virtuosity and the extraordinary resonance of the cello. The boundary between acoustics and electronics achieved between Cenk Ergun and Mariel Roberts, "Aman", in the piece of collaboration between both have dry ingredients, percussion sounds, airy arc textures and devastating double stops. The texture and the timbre provide the narrative compendium in this work, the name of a word (aman) with which is denominated in diverse ways to the "security" in Arabic and, in turn, expresses a feeling of deep sadness and loss In Turkish.=
George Lewis's solo, "Spinner", is inspired by the Moiras of Greek mythology, (in ancient Greek ῖοῖραι, 'repartidoras'), who were the personifications of destiny. Its equivalents in the Roman mythology were the Fates or Fata, the Laimas in the Baltic mythology and in the Nordic the Nornas. Dressed in white robes, their number ended up fixing in three. The work jumps with energy between different disjointed and angular musical characters in a technical and expressive virtuoso display. Lewis takes into account even the explanation of the role of Plato's Destinies, that the ultimate responsibility and administration of our communities rests with the humans themselves, a viewpoint that could find some danger in this historical moment we are living in.=
"The Cartography of Time" by composer David Brynjar Franzson, born in Iceland but based in New York City, has sonically expansive textures, exploring the dichotomy between micro and macro gestures and the structural context. Franzson paints a strong landscape and proposes an introspective look at a musical theme whose uncompromising energy is constant, intense and sometimes even disturbing, reflecting precisely the complicated moment in which we live.
The cellist Mariel Roberts is widely recognized as an interpreter deeply dedicated to contemporary music. Her recent performances have garnered accolades for his "technical style and exquisite sensibility" (American Composers Forum) as well as for "his ability and youthful vision accompanied by a surprising maturity." (InDigest Magazine). Expanding the technical and expressive possibilities of the instrument through its close relationship with innovative interpreters and composers of its generation. Her passion for collaboration and experimentation has led her to release new works by both emerging and established artists.
Roberts has performed as a soloist and chamber musician on four continents, most notably as a member of the Mivos Quartet, as well as the Wet Ink Ensemble and the Ensemble Signal. She regularly performs in the main stages of the new music, such as the Lincoln Center Festival (New York), Wien Modern (Austria), Lucerne Festival (Switzerland), Cervantino Festival (Mexico), Sound Festival New Music from Shanghai (China) and the Aldeburgh Music Festival (UK). Roberts has performed as a chamber musician on recordings for record labels Innova, Albany Records, New World Records, New Amsterdam, Carrier Records, New Focus and Urtext Records.
— Cultural Mente Incorrecto, 5.26.2017, translated from Spanish
Here’s an album of pretty edgy modern music by a cellist dedicated to the propagation of such sounds. Some of it is brilliant, and will capture your imagination immediately, while other parts are subtler, requiring that you come to them, but in the end the journey is satisfying and worthwhile.
Detailed explanations of each work are found in the brief liner notes. The opener, Eric Wubbels’ gretchen am spinnrade, takes the story of Gretchen at her spinning wheel and projects her as also spinning “the wheel of karma, turning of cause and effect, compulsive loops of thought and action, repetitive behavior and cycles of history.” Wubbels, who plays piano on this track, aptly describes it as “A manic, hounded piece, atlernating relentless motoric circuits with plateaus of regular, ‘idling’ motion.” Manic is the word for it! For the first minute or so, all you hear are tremolos on the piano and cello, followed by occasional crashing chords, before the music takes off in its edgy, motor-driven manner. It sounds like a combination of Frederick Rzewski’s Les Moutons des Panurge and Maxwell Davies’ Eight Songs for a Mad King. Roberts almost seems to be playing her cello on the edge of the strings, pulling some weird overtones and boiler-factory sounds out of it, but I LOVED it! You’d better put your big boy pants and big girl dresses on if you come to hear this piece, or it will eat you alive. Interestingly, as it progresses, Wubbels seems to be deconstructing his own work, breaking it into smaller pieces, but not for easier digestion. On the contrary, these smaller pieces make the music even weirder, at one point getting stuck on a D drone for several bars before suddenly latching onto a series of manic triplets that represented, to me, the turn of Gretchen’s spinning wheel. A strange but wonderful piece, it eventually winds down to a lento pace towards the end as, I suppose, Gretchen’s karma runs out of gas.
Cenk Ergün defines Aman as meaning security, although he explains that “in Turkish it is sometimes used to alert one of an imminent danger, as in, ‘Watch out!’” With conditions being what they currently are in the Middle East, imminent danger seems to be the order of the day. This one starts quietly, with occasional thumps and plops coming from the electronic instruments played by the composer, followed around the two-minute mark by high-pitched plucks from the cello. This leads to the cello plucking in its extreme low range, trying to match to some extent what the electronics are doing, later followed by string tremolos. Whereas the Wubbels piece relied primarily on ryhthm to make its effect, Ergün’s consists primarily of sound and texture. Much of its effect is subtle and understated, with some of its warnings whispered in one’s ear. Eventually the electronics create crunchy sounds, over which the cello plucks high-range notes that almost sound random in pitch and placement. Oddly enough, this portion of the work almost sounds like those old-fashioned jack-in-the-boxes when you cranked the handle. This one, too, winds down to a slow pace for the finale.
George Lewis’ Spinner is based on the legend of the ancient sister goddesses known as the Fates. Wagnerians know them from the opening of Götterdämmerung, where, under the name of Norns, they tell the story of the drama and predict a dreary end for the gods and their Valhalla. Yet whereas Wagner’s music for the Fates was slow and dreary, Lewis’ is bright-toned, quick-tempoed and edgy, relying on Roberts’ tremendous technical and interpretive skill to weave her own magic. Lewis admits that when writing this piece it did not have any title at all, but the idea of connecting it to the Fates came to him “in the course of my meditation on the materiality and poetics of her instrument.” To me, personally, the music represents more of a “serious playfulness” than the spinning of the Fates, one of whom is named Clotho (apparently the Marx Brothers’ wardrobe designer). There is a great deal of wry humor in this music as well, including some really bizarre-sounding portamento passages, all of it brought out beautifully by Roberts.
David Brynjar Franzson’s The Cartography of Time is built around some truly strange sounds that even I couldn’t identify. They sound like rats scrambling and scratching in a maze. How did she produce those sounds on a cello? Indeed, so much of the playing on here sounds like the product of electronics that I’d probably have to see Roberts play it to figure out even remotely what on earth she is doing! The composer defines cartography as not just drawing maps, but also expressing relationships between a part and a whole and also between a scale or measure and a value. This is by far the most ambient and least purely “musical” piece on the album, sounding in places like the kind of things Milton Babbitt used to do.
All in all, a truly amazing, mind-stretching recording. If you just let your mind wander as you listen to it, you’ll be amazed by the forms and colors that emerge. I may not have been able to describe musically what Franzson does in the last piece, but taken on its own terms it’s sort of like an acid trip or the final scene from 2001: A Space Odyssey. Quite a buzz!
—© 1.1.2017 Lynn René Bayley, The Art Music Lounge
Raging Against the Machine may be the title of the last CD discussed, but the phrase could apply equally, or perhaps even more appropriately, to Eric Wubbels’ composition gretchen am spinnrade which opens Mariel Roberts’ latest CD Cartography (New Focus Recordings fcr185 marielroberts.com). As a matter of fact I had to go online to watch a video of a live performance (at icareifyoulisten.com) to see whether or not any machine-like technology was in use.
With the composer at the piano and Roberts on cello it is amazing to realize that the excruciating intensity is being generated in real time by two mere mortals. It is truly a sight, and sound, to behold, with what Wubbels describes as “alternating relentless motoric circuits with plateaus of regular ‘idling’ motion.” After repeated listening and viewing it is still not clear to me whether the microtonality in the piano part as the piece progresses is a result of the frantic banging on the keys, or if some of the notes have been specially (de)tuned in advance. Whatever the case, Gretchen is definitely pictured at a particularly post-industrial spinning wheel in this reinterpretation of Schubert’s original.
By way of respite, Aman by Cenk Ergün is a much quieter offering, but one that does involve live electronics by the composer along with Roberts’ solo cello. While it was the intensity and sheer volume of Wubbels’ scoring that made the sounds seem mechanical in gretchen, here it is the sparseness that makes them unfamiliar and somewhat otherworldly. It is as if we are “listening” through a microscope to the very structure of the sounds. It’s often hard to distinguish between the manufactured sounds and those created by extended techniques on the cello. I look forward to seeing a video of this one or, better yet, the chance to see Roberts in live performance. George Lewis’ Spinner for solo cello veritably bursts forth after the quietude of Aman. Lewis, Edwin H. Case Professor of American Music at Columbia University, is also a renowned trombonist who has worked with the Association for the Advancement of Creative Music for more than four and a half decades. Spinner is set in a more traditional mode for a virtuosic solo instrumental work, at least in the sense of the post-war avant-garde. It is a compendium of sounds available to the cellist using bow and fingers on the strings of the instrument, without venturing into the various extra-musical extensions sometimes called for in the context. It is a thoroughly musical work, which effectively integrates some aspects of modern jazz without compromising its status as a concert piece. The disc concludes with The Cartography of Time by New York based composer Davíð Brynjar Franzson. The program note includes a definition of cartography (map-making) and time (the indefinite continued progress of existence...) and a quotation from Wittgenstein, none of which sheds much light on the piece, but I do find its progress glacial and textures reminiscent of an Icelandic landscape or, in my wife’s ears, Northern Lights, perhaps linked to the composer’s birthplace, Akureyri, on the north coast of Iceland just south of the Arctic Circle.
All in all, Roberts’ disc is an incredible journey. Fasten your seatbelt and pack your parka, but be forewarned, although it begins with a bang!, it ends with a whisper…
— David Olds, 6.1.2017, The Whole Note, Editor’s Corner
Cellist Mariel Roberts’ second solo album, Cartography, provides a stylistically diverse set of pieces that are all played compellingly and with earnest commitment. Eric Wubbels’ ‘gretchen am spinnrade’ has little to do with Schubert apart from taking the spinning wheel as its motivation. Indeed, spinning gestures abound, but they are hyperkinetic in terms of speed and demeanor (Wubbels plays the piano with almost daemonic fury). Roberts is required to retune her cello, employ microtones, and scratch strings with her fingernails. The propulsive sections are on the edge of assaultive, and when the piece takes a breather and moves into more atmospheric territory, the listener may well realize that their shoulders are around their ears. That said, it is a most impressive work, from the standpoint of virtuosity and extended techniques and in the dynamic interplay between the performers.
Cenk Ergun’s Aman is quite different. It relies first on percussive effects, with clocklike pizzicatos moving from higher register to low open strings. Grating string sounds are set against electronics, some of which take on an old-school analog cast while others play off the percussive sounds in the cello. Again, pacing is key. Where Wubbels seemed eager to take listeners to the edge, Ergun places his sounds carefully and purposefully, allowing each one to settle before the next follows, creating a fascinating blend of acoustic and electric sounds. The long denouement, where Roberts finally gets to play some bowed sounds, replete with microtonal haze and delicious slides, is a welcome surprise.
Spinner, by George Lewis, begins emphatically, with double stop glissandos, tremolandos, and slashing gestures. Despite its modernist demeanor, it is actually the most conventionally scored piece on Cartography. While the elements are ones that appear in plenty of contemporary repertoire, without electronics or fingernail scratches to adorn them, Lewis incorporates this vocabulary into a spiraling form (hence the title) that allows for discontinuous development; it is a fascinating compositional design. Indeed, ‘spinner’ is my favorite work thus far of his in the concert tradition.
There are relatively few notes in Daneil Brynjar Franzen’s The Cartography of Time, a sprawling amplified work more than twenty minutes in duration. But each note is wrung of every bit of resonance, making it seem to truly matter. Against the pitches is an exaggerated whoosh of unpitched string sound, providing a rustling and airy background. Partway through, the piece abandons lower notes for high harmonics, which reverberate intensely. Then the two are combined to great a ghostly duet. Then still another, yet higher, set of harmonics enter, making a registral trio. The slow fade that ensues is one to savor.
Roberts thus treats us to a program in which there are works that use material sparingly and those that exude abundance. Cartography is an engaging listen from start to finish. One might ask how she can top it, but then her first album, 2012’s Nonextraneous Sounds, engendered similar questions, so watch out for what Roberts has yet in store for us!
— Christian Carey, Sequenza 21, 6.1.2017
The monochromatic cover art of Mariel Roberts’ Cartography is cryptic and arresting: a figure struggling in a woven cocoon hangs in darkness, the album’s title cascading down its folds letter by letter. Jessica Slaven’s inked drawing captures the dangerous and intoxicating world of Cartography, Roberts’ second solo album out now on New Focus Recordings. In its four dark and vulnerable pieces, Roberts casts a powerful and delicate web, connecting the shadowy cracks in the rich palette of the cello.
The album opens with the standout piece, Eric Wubbels’ manic gretchen am spinnrade for cello and piano. From the rhythm of the cello’s repeated notes to the piano’s corrupted arpeggios, there are distant echoes of the piece’s namesake. In Franz Schubert’s song, Gretchen struggles to restart the spinning wheel before the final refrain, while the wheel in Wubbels’ work often gets caught in “idling motion” – a mechanically-precise riff repeats many times, hammer and bow ricocheting across strings asymmetrically like a lopsided bobbin unspooling. In an ecstatic moment late in the piece, Wubbels trills a single note in the lowest octave, and Roberts emerges from its dense tangle of harmonics with a patiently repeating motive, which leads the piano back into a clacking, staccato polyphony. This kind of interplay throughout the piece creates the “turning of cause and effect” Wubbels references in his program note.
Cenk Ergün’s Aman uses live electronics to obscure the cello’s identity, creating an uncanny sonic world. The piece begins with noisy cello artifacts, taps and scrapes on the instrument which slowly build into a pointillistic blizzard. Eventually, an insistent plucked string sounds, ringing bright like a guitar. Low notes groan, sinister in their quiet and unstable grating, while pizzicato notes and articulated bursts of noise recall the early synthesized music of Morton Subotnick. The piece abruptly ends after teasing a return to this chaos from a series of long, warmly detuned notes. Aman succeeds on Roberts’ assertive navigation of its somewhat aimless form, with its sudden changes in timbre and energy (the title, notes Ergün, means something like “watch out!” in Turkish).
Roberts commissioned and premiered George Lewis’ Spinner for solo cello, which is inspired by Clotho, the Fate of Greek myth who determines the length of each human’s life by spinning a length of thread. In this showcase of Roberts’ technical and interpretive mastery, the moments of fierce passagework suddenly give way to hesitating harmonics, scratchy tremolos, or impish pizzicato, perhaps representing many entangled individual lives meted out on the strings of the cello. Like much of George Lewis’ music, Spinner is at once deadly serious and irreverent.
Davíð Brynjar Franzson quotes Ludwig Wittgenstein in his program note to The Cartography of Time: “How is it possible that one should measure time? For the past cannot be measured, as it is gone by; and the future can’t be measured because it has not yet come. And the present can’t be measured for it has no extension.” The act of listening is to create a map of time, surveying the the past and future simultaneously, observing the topography and orientation of the musical terrain from the vantage point of the infinitesimal present. Franzson has written several versions of the piece for other instruments and ensembles, but the rhetorical power of a solo instrument–especially one as muscular and fragile as the cello–makes Roberts’ interpretation a standout among them.
Beginning with a ghostly rasping of bow hair on string, Roberts’ cello rings a low, resonant pitch, evaporating into a sustained, ethereal harmonic. Subtle live electronics granulate the instrument’s sound and nervously jostle it around the stereo field, creating a spiky texture on top of the glacial harmony and blurring the causality of interactions between instrument and electronics. It’s not until a third of the way through the spacious 20-minute piece that other pitches enter this spare world, spinning out on delicate threads that dissipate at different rates. But the tectonic low pitch from the beginning has never really gone away, even when we only hear it resonating in harmonic tremors on the surface.
This is the most essential map of music: a single pitch’s resonance, its infinite spectrum unfolding across time. Like a cartographer peels and flattens the globe, distorting its poles so we can navigate the rhumb lines, music projects the many dimensions of the ineffable onto our linear experience of time. With the album’s consistent thematic unity, flawless production, and thoughtful performance, Mariel Roberts is both an expert mapmaker and navigator on Cartography.
— Jason Charney, I Care if You Listen, 6.7.2017
Cartography, the second solo album from cellist Mariel Roberts, follows up and extends the work she did on her debut solo recording, 2012’s Nonextraneous Sounds. There, she presented five pieces for solo cello or cello in tandem with electronics, all of which she had commissioned from composers under the age of 40. Her new CD also presents new work, all of them composed last year. Two are for solo cello and one each are for cello accompanied by piano and live electronics. And in contrast to the earlier CD, the work of at least one veteran composer, George Lewis, is represented.
Roberts is known as a cellist working with the sometimes radical techniques and forms of contemporary composed music. Although all four of the works on Cartography are technically challenging, the technical resources they demand are simply a means toward expressive ends; the inspirations behind the compositions, far from consisting in the investigation of technique for its own sake, all derive from extra-musical ideas. Interestingly, these ideas largely have to do with time: Time as manifested in historical cycles, time as the measure of the finite lifespans of individuals and groups, and time as a perpetually unfinished sequence of moments and events.
Eric Wubbels’ gretchen am spinnrade, for cello and piano, turns on repetition. The composer, who also performs on piano, describes it as a “manic, hounded piece”—an accurate summary of its more or less relentless hammering away at repeated notes, phrases and rhythms. There are occasional, short-lived interludes of calm, but the piece is notably harrowing experience—an effect not only of the constantly tolling piano but of the dazzlingly virtuosic unison passages of rapidly changing time signatures and displaced accents.
Lewis’s Spinner was inspired by the Greek myth of the Fates, the three goddesses presiding over the finitude and fortunes of human life. The work calls for a wide variety of contemporary performance techniques—broad glissandi, discordant double stops, abrupt punctuation with plucked notes and harmonics, unusual bow articulations. Rather than sounding abstract, this mixture of techniques lends the piece a very human quality—much of it conveyed by the cello’s capacity for capturing vocal inflections, which Roberts’s performance brings out.
The Cartography of Time, by composer Davið Brynjar Franzson is, like Spinner, a work for unaccompanied cello. Franzson’s map is drawn with long, sustained tones gradually multiplied through layering. There is no real melodic movement, just a slow thickening of texture into standing, nearly immobile harmonies. The image of time that emerges is as a kind of dessicated, immaterial plain stretching ahead to an endpoint always receding beyond the horizon.
Cenk Ergün’s Aman, a word that in Arabic means “security” but in Turkish is a warning, is the one piece that doesn’t engage time directly. A work for cello and live electronics, Aman unfolds through discontinuities of texture and register, initially treating the cello almost as a percussion instrument. The electronics, supplied by the composer, take the piece farther away from a “natural” acoustic sound by introducing an element of distortion and colored noise, and eventually transforming the cello into a dispenser of backward-surging tones.
The four pieces differ significantly from each other and place different sets of demands on the performer; Roberts’s performances are consistently exciting and never allow technique to overshadow expression. — Daniel Barbiero, Avant Music News, 6.19.2017